by Greg Carlson
Let’s face it: there aren’t many film fans that are praising the aesthetic advantages of the VHS tape, especially in an age where people keep their movie libraries up in that much-hyped cloud. When DVDs came on the scene in the late ‘90s, all of the flaws and issues associated with videotape became a moot point. Gone were the white lines displaying at the bottom of the screen, followed by the multiple inconveniences of getting out of your seat, walking up to the VCR, and adjusting the tracking. No more bruised thumbs caused by holding down the fast forward buttons for several minutes just to view your favorite scene. DVD players easily made the transition into portable format, thus making entertainment- based planning for airplane flights, family road trips, and excursions to remote locations without television that much easier.
As with everything that has a hint of nostalgia associated with it, VHS tapes live on in the social media age, whether it’s someone posting their collection of ‘80s box art or the performance art stylings of Everything is Terrible!, who are attempting to obtain every Jerry Maguire VHS tape still in existence. The Scarecrow Project even hosted an event in 2015 where a collective of artists created their own offbeat versions of VHS box art.
While the majority of my VHS tape collection is stored in a box awaiting their fate, several of them are still on my shelf, based on equal parts cover art, kitsch value, and the fact that purchasing the tape for one dollar would be less than the cost of a rental. After dusting off and plugging in my GoVideo Dual Deck VHS/DVD console, I decided to indulge in three nights of old-school video viewing.
I snapped up the videocassette of Mother, Jugs & Speed due to the retro-looking cover, somewhat titillating title, and the concept of Harvey Keitel, Raquel Welch, and Bill Cosby starring in a movie together. After a very ‘70s opening montage featuring a disco beat, speeding vehicles, and a women’s wrestling match, the film settles into a constant pattern of casual sexism, racism, drinking on the job, and the swinging bachelor lifestyle, set behind a basic plot concerning corruption and competition between two ambulance services. While watching the film in my lo-fi settings was initially fun, the retro nostalgia quickly wears off, and the black comedy becomes uncomfortable at times, particularly during an attempted rape scene in the back of an ambulance, initiated not by Cosby’s character, but by Murdoch, played by Larry Hagman in the prototypical comic/sleaze relief role.
When I saw a VHS copy of The Mephisto Waltz at the local thrift store, I knew I had to buy it, despite not knowing anything of the film. Judging by the box art and title, I knew that even a Rosemary’s Baby rip-off would still be an entertaining movie-viewing experience. Plus, a young, dark-haired Alan Alda as one of the leads. Given these standards, I was not disappointed, and it was a perfect film to watch on the small screen utilizing obsolete technology. While the film isn’t as tense or suspenseful as it should be, and the symbolism/foreshadowing is obvious from the get-go, it has all the hallmarks of a great B-movie: psychedelic opening credits, skewed angles and soft focus, Jerry Goldsmith’s atonal score, and heavy borrowing from the greats (in this case, Hitchcock, Polanski, and Argento) Additionally, Jacqueline Bisset rises above the material and turns in a great performance as Alda’s suspicious wife.
Of all the videotapes that have been in my possession, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb is definitely the oddest. Up until now, I had never seen this 60-minute U.K. film from 1993, but the poster image of lead actor Nick Upton’s maniacal grin had always haunted me the same way the Eraserhead poster freaked me out a decade-plus earlier. I’m glad I put my fears behind me – this was a great thrift-store find. The mixture of actors and animated characters filmed entirely in stop-motion animation was nothing like I’d ever seen. Watching it on VHS brought me back to the time when I’d take a chance on the titles listed on the Staff Picks shelf of my video store, usually from the clerks who had no time for blockbusters or family-friendly animation. Minimal dialogue, the creepy facial tics of the actors playing modern-day giants, the broken toys-meets-art school sensibilities of the animated characters and background sets – this movie makes Tim Burton look tame and gives David Lynch a run for his money.
Overall, my VHS tape-watching excursion was a pleasant one, bringing back memories of limited viewing choices, and how a random selection at the video store resulted in hidden gems or camp classics. Moreover, I didn’t mind the rewinding and fast forwarding – I was able to check my email messages and social media feeds while the VCR was chugging along.
Greg Carlson is a film fan and memorabilia hunter who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. His top three films are (in random order): Time Bandits, Repo Man, and Taxi Driver. For more pop-culture musings, follow him on Instagram at gregario72.